Learn about the VCE chemistry course, assessments and exam from a high achiever, as well as useful tips and tricks to ace the exam!
VCE chemistry is one of the most popular STEM subjects as it is offered at many schools, and is a prerequisite for many STEM university courses. In this post, I’ll be sharing information about the course, as well as tips and tricks to achieve the scores you need!
VCE chemistry delves into various topics which are:
- What are the current and future options for supplying energy?
- Carbon-based fuels
- Stoichiometry and heat energy calculations
- Primary galvanic cells and fuel cells
- How can the rate and yield of chemical reactions be optimised?
- Rates of reactions
- Equilibrium reactions
- Electrolysis and secondary cells
- How are organic compounds categorised and synthesized?
- Structure, naming and properties of organic compounds
- Organic chemical reactions
- Volumetric analysis
- Spectroscopic techniques
- Medicinal chemistry (enzymes, properties of organic molecules, extraction and purification)
- How is scientific inquiry used to investigate the sustainable production of energy and/or materials?
- Scientific investigation (based on one of the areas of study mentioned above)
Assessments will usually be a typical test-style SAC, or a practical investigation covering the areas of study mentioned above. However, your class may complete different types of SAC assessments for the different topics depending on your school and teachers. My advice with practical investigation SACs in particular is to really understand the difference with the experimental design terminology, such as systematic and random errors, accuracy, precision, validity, repeatability and reproducibility.
The questions in the chemistry exam are similar to those in other science subjects. The exam is comprised of 30 multiple choice questions, and typically 7-9 questions that involve calculation questions or explain questions. One of these questions is based on an experimental design, and the last question is typically a question that gives you the chance to “show off” your knowledge of a certain area of chemistry. Here is a short explanation on each of these types questions:
Multiple choice questions
Multiple choice questions are typically straightforward calculation questions or test your knowledge of the theory. Sometimes, the answers given to you may seem very similar, so it is hard to decide on which one to select. My main advice on this is to use elimination to get rid of any implausible answers and recall the chemistry concepts you learnt during the year to pick the best answer. Typically, the first answer you pick is probably the best choice; the more you second-guess your answer, the more uncertain you will become, so trust your gut feeling and select the answer that you think is best!
Similar to subjects like physics, calculation questions are typically straightforward, as you will often only need to apply formulae based on the question. However, there are still some things to look out for in these questions:
- What units of quantities have you been given? Do you need to convert any of these values to SI units? In particular with chemistry, you need to be careful when applying formulae as not all of them SI units. For example, the equation ∆H=q/n gives you the enthalpy of a reaction ∆H in kJ rather than the SI unit J, since the heat of combustion values in the data book are typically in kJ/g or kJ/mol.
- What units are you asked to answer in? Do you need to convert your final calculation to these units? Be sure to read the question carefully to know what units you need to answer in.
- Are you using the correct values of constants? For example, the specific heat capacity of water can be given as 4.18kJ/kgK or 4.18 J/gK, so be careful with which form of the constant you need to use for a question.
- How many significant figures or decimal places are you asked to round to? And if there is no indication, what is the minimum amount of significant figures in values given by the question? This will tell you how many significant figures to round to.
Just like with other subjects, for “explain” questions, we need to take our understanding of a certain chemistry concept and use it to explain a scenario. These types of questions are very common throughout the exam so it is important to be prepared for them. For each mark allocated to these sorts of questions, there is a certain concept or connection to the scenario that you have to mention to earn those marks. An interesting “explain” question from the 2022 chemistry exam is as follows: “When corn is picked it tastes sweet. Farmers recommend eating corn soon after picking. Once picked, the sweetness of the corn begins to decrease as glucose reacts to form starch. One way to help keep the sweetness for longer is to boil the corn for about two minutes and then freeze it. Identify how boiling and then freezing corn helps to keep it sweet for longer.” At first, you may think that this question is absurd as you probably wouldn’t have learnt about corn in your course! However, to answer this question, we need to look at what chemistry concepts we have learnt can be applied. Firstly, we need to note that the glucose in the corn will undergo a reaction that causes it to form starch. We know that for a lot of food chemistry reactions, an enzyme is required for the reaction to occur. We can now link this to what we are doing with the corn: by boiling the corn, we are essentially heating it and increasing the temperature, and this will cause the enzymes that convert glucose into starch to denature. After this, the corn is put in the freezer. We know that lowering the temperature of enzymes will not denature them, so there must be another purpose of this action, such as reducing the rate of reaction of the conversion of glucose to starch.
However, this is not the only type of “explain” question you’ll come across in the exam. Recent exams have included another type of “explain” question (typically the last question of the exam) where you will be asked to explain a chemistry concept, give examples, and use diagrams or graphs to explain your answer. These questions typically weight more than usual “explain” questions, however, the way in which you need to answer them is similar: you will get a mark for each main point or diagram/ graph that is required. For example, in the 2022 exam, one of these longer “explain” questions tested your knowledge on flashpoints of molecules, and another asked you to explain rates of reactions in regard to the use of a catalyst.
The experimental design question is a relatively large portion of the mark distribution of the exam. Similar to biology and physics, the experimental design question will require you to interpret data and use it to prove an experimental method. These questions will typically ask you to identify independent, dependent and controlled variables, identify relationships between variables, perform calculations and also identify areas of uncertainty in the experimental method (e.g. systematic and random errors, justifications for validity, etc).
Some past exams included experiments that are often performed in chemistry classes or explained as part of the course content such as a high performance liquid chromatography experiment in the 2021 exam, whilst others may have more “non-conventional” experiments such as the 2022 exam where the oxidation of ethanol in a wine sample was measured. The best way to familiarise yourself with these questions is understanding the course content including the experimental design terminology and fully completing and understanding practical experiments in class.
Exam preparation and advice
Similar to other subjects, your exam preparation begins from when you commence the VCE chemistry course. Taking notes and completing practice questions from your teachers in class, completing textbook questions and frequently revisiting your notes are the best ways to ensure that you are understanding the content, especially since there is a lot to memorise in this course. Additionally, it is important to make sure that you retain your understanding of the topics you learn in class. As always, completing questions in past VCAA exams and the Excel Academics website, will help consolidate your knowledge and provide you with valuable exam-style revision. If you are unsure about a concept, be sure to seek help from your teachers, tutors and friends until you do understand the concept, as many students find that the topics studied in units 3 and 4 are much more challenging than the topics in units 1 and 2.
Towards the end of term 3 when I was familiar with the course’s content, I began completing previous VCAA exams from the current study design in exam conditions. Completing these practice exams is especially important, as they familiarize you with the types of questions you may come across in the exam, as well as introduce you to the time pressure of completing the exam. I think with VCE chemistry in particular, you will find that the exam questions are significantly different from typical classroom or textbook questions as they will really challenge your thinking. However, with enough practice exams and revision completed, you will be able to maximise your preparation prior to the exam.
Additional tips and tricks!
Just like with other science subjects, it is truly essential to have a firm understanding of the concepts in VCE chemistry. In particular, the “explain” style questions, extended investigation questions and the last questions in the exam that test your understanding of certain topics will require a firm understanding of the chemistry concepts to be able to be answered well.
Another piece of advice is to familiarise yourself with the data booklet: you will not be able to bring your own notes into the exam, so make sure you understand all of the information given to you in the data book, and what situations the information may be used for (for example, using the molar heat of combustion vs the heat of combustion for calculating the amount of energy released by a fuel). Throughout the year, I had an annotated copy of the data book where I added some of my own important points to remember such as:
- Formula for the density of water (as this is not actually included in the data book)
- Oxidants and reductants on the electrochemical series
- Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and saturated and unsaturated fatty acids
- Properties of biomolecules
- The polarity of the R groups for all amino acids
This will allow you to recall this important information faster in the exam, and also familiarize yourself if the data book!
I hope that you were able to learn something new from this post, and best of luck with your chemistry studies!
This blog was written by our tutor, Leonie. You can find her profile here.
“My name is Leonie and I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Engineering and Arts at Monash University! Having recently completed VCE, I currently tutor physics, chemistry, maths and Japanese SL, with the hopes to help students make the most out of their studies and achieve the marks they are aiming for. “